The Bible is neither tame nor ashamed. It is raw, uncensored and to be believed. It speaks to deeds that are worthy of emulation, as well as accounts that are downright embarrassing for the people of God. Such is the tragedy of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11), a story of embezzlement, manipulation and divine execution of judgment that begs the question: Is God capricious? Why does He punish some and not others?
The early Church and its community experienced idyllic conditions: exponential growth and hearts and souls tethered together in one accord. They looked after one another, even to the point of selling their own possessions to give to needs.
In contrast to Barnabas, who sold a field and brought all of the proceeds to the apostles (Acts 4:36-37), Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, sold a piece of their property, held back a portion of the proceeds for themselves and then brought the rest to the Apostles to give to the church. Far from a mere lie, this intentional misappropriation of funds aimed to secure the glory and praise for sacrificial giving without bearing the full weight of the cost. The text makes clear that they were under no obligation to sell the property in the first place nor to give all of the funds to the Apostles. However, their desire was not to serve the poor but to help themselves to a reputation they did not deserve, exchanging faithfulness to the community and to the Lord for the praise and validation of man.
With the tainted offering at his feet, Peter prosecuted Ananias with precision, revealing the couple’s succumbing to Satan’s temptation, the contriving of the deed itself and their lust for reputation and approval. Peter’s closing statement was punctuated as Ananias breathed his last and fell dead. A few hours later, Sapphira met the same fate and was buried next to her husband. Though God usually withholds judgment for sin for a later time, in this case, God brought instantaneous judgment. He desired to remove the sin from the community in short order.
Having set the stage, we must answer the question: Is God capricious? Did Ananias and Sapphira meet their end because of some divine mood swing? Does God arbitrarily make some pay for crimes while others are able to walk away with not so much as a slap on the wrist? Does the punishment exceed the crime, making God cruel?
Modern readers find this passage difficult because Ananias and Sapphira were offered no chance at repentance, no due process and a punishment that appears excessive. If we are honest, this kind of sin would hardly make the nightly news today because our view of sin is so low. To make matters worse, this is not the only biblical account where God’s judgment seems harsh, cruel and quick. Consider Achan, who was stoned for having kept spoils of war after the destruction of Jericho, (Josh. 7:10-26) and Nadab and Abihu, who were consumed by fire for offering an unauthorized sacrifice (Lev. 10:1-3).
These accounts are meant to challenge our worldview. They mean to confront us so that we reject our current glibness toward sin and adopt a serious posture toward its seriousness. All sin has death as its end (Rom. 6:23; Jas. 1:14-15). If we assume God must forgive sin, or worse, will overlook sin, then we will have difficulty facing passages where God executes judgment. This reluctance to acknowledge God’s right to judge sin represents a secular worldview, which presupposes that God (if He exists) should bend His will to ours. It is a worldview built on a faulty foundation that supports a skewed framework, bound to collapse. It asserts that unless we can fully explain God’s actions and approve of them, we can reject both them and Him.
A Christian worldview, however, starts with a firm foundation that is able to support a solid framework for life. Christians believe that God’s thoughts and ways are higher than humanity’s thoughts and ways (Isa. 55:8-9). A Christian worldview not only accounts for but also expects that some of God’s ways will not make sense to us. Where we do not understand, we trust that God always acts in accordance with the fullness of His character. He does not set aside wrath and justice to act in love and grace or vice versa. Any human judge that turns a blind eye toward injustice would be denounced by our society. Neither can God turn a blind eye. God is not unloving for demanding justice. It is precisely because He is a God of love that He does so.
In the case of Ananias and Sapphira, rather than shudder at their fate, we should marvel that it is not normative of how God relates to his people. Humans sin countless times (though not countless to God) without facing immediate judgment of death, though God is not obligated to a policy of deferment. However, in this case, for purposes known fully to God, He decides to execute judgment immediately. The text gives a glimpse into God’s purposes, relating that these events caused fear to come over the whole church. The church in its infancy needed to know that God considers the holiness of the Church to be a critical part of its witness to the world, testifying to the nature and character to God. This divine intervention served to communicate clearly to the community that it was called to holiness and loyalty to God.
The crime and punishment of Ananias and Sapphira provide us with three thoughts worth considering further. First, sin always costs more than we think and is never worth it. This couple’s desire to procure a reputation beyond their stature, purchased by deceit, actually bought infamy and death. We are fools if we believe the lie that sin comes in a single-serving package. Sin multiplies and begets more sin.
Second, God is just and has the right to punish sin. People will be held accountable for their sin, from serial crimes to telling white lies.
Finally, we should be amazed at the reality that God would forgive any sin, much less be willing to bear the punishment of death Himself in order to extend life to those who don’t deserve it. He could punish every sin with death and be fully justified for doing so. That He does not shows Him to be a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (Ex. 34:6). The cross shatters all claims of capriciousness in God’s character as God Himself is willing to undergo the ultimate punishment in our place, proving beyond question that God is love.